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Making Your Brand Original

Like your competitor's ideas? Our branding expert explains the fine line between inspiration and imitation.

We all know it's tempting to copy the competition. There's safety in conformity--a certain "comfort factor" in being similar. After all, the other company knows what it's doing, right? Not always.

First, remember that branding is about differentiation--emphasizing your company's differences, not similarities. When you copy the competition, you're reminding customers of them, not you. However, there's a difference between exact imitation and creative inspiration. Use creativity to leverage an existing idea, but avoid replicating its every detail. So when is it okay to follow someone else's lead and when isn't it?

Of course, plagiarism is out, and it's illegal to copy anything that's patented or trademarked. Here are some other less obvious things you may be tempted to copy but shouldn't:

  • Don't imitate the design/layout of sales materials. Copying a competitor's materials is never a good idea because instead of differentiating your business, it makes you look more like your competitor. It's fine to imitate basics of their material like "lots of white space" or forced-perspective product photos (just don't use the same perspective!). But avoid choosing similar colors, graphics and layout.
  • Don't imitate the content or style of your competitor's copywriting, or you'll literally sound just like the competition. Instead, create your own unique "voice" and messaging. Good copy has a consistent, strategic tone to it (e.g., conversational, direct, humorous, etc.) that reflects the personality of the company and product. When done correctly, copywriting is an integral part of branding.
  • Don't imitate the primary color your competitor uses. Select at least one unique color to associate with your company--use it in your logo, on sales materials, product packing, signage, etc. (You can use a Pantone Matching System or "PMS" book to help you choose the exact color. Always specify the exact PMS number to your printer.)
  • Don't imitate the name of your competitor--make yours as different as possible. Also, try to avoid using the same first letter as your biggest competitor. You may like the fact that "AAA Towing" puts you first in the phone book, but it sounds too much like "ABC Towing" to help with your branding.

If you have to, imitate a competitor's marketing strategy or sales incentives only with extreme caution. Make sure you understand the underlying assumptions first. For example, if a competitor's sales materials feature an upscale design, maybe there's a good reason behind it, maybe not. Is there a market for premium-priced goods? Or does the CEO simply prefer an expensive look? Sometimes companies--even bigger ones--have no sound strategy behind what they do. They're just catering to personal tastes or imitating somebody else themselves.

Imitation isn't all bad, though. Here are instances in which it can be quite beneficial:

  • When you translate a principle from one industry to another. For example, a local carpet company offers a one-day "Remnant Sale." Your computer company offers a similar one-day sale with out-of-date PCs.
  • When being different hurts your customers' experience. It rarely makes sense to deviate from standard industry terms or navigation rules. For example, changing the "About Us" link to "Leading the Way" on your website may be creative, but it's less clear and makes customers less comfortable. In some cases, familiarity is crucial.
  • When imitating something "obvious" brings comfort to your customers. Say you own a restaurant and your customers are health-conscious. Green is a color associated with health, but your competitors also know this and probably use green abundantly. You don't need to omit green from your design palette--instead, use it as a secondary color, or choose an unusual but attractive shade of green no one else has chosen.
  • When being different means not meeting established customer expectations. Industry standards are standard for a reason. It's risky to deviate from the norm when it means customers may be disappointed.

Your goal is to stand out without sticking out. You want your customers' experience to be comfortable and positive, but also unique. Seeking customer comfort and satisfaction in creative ways is a vital way to build brand equity.

John Williams is the founder and president of LogoYes.com, the world's first do-it-yourself logo design website. During John's 25 years in advertising, he's created brand standards for Fortune 100 companies like Mitsubishi and won numerous awards for his design work.

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